Thursday, October 29, 2015

Realm of Terror

This was the boxed set that kicked Ravenloft as a discrete setting off in earnest. I remember saving up some money from my summer job as a teenager to get my hands on his the week it came out. I also remember being both inspired and disappointed by the contents of the box. As I re-read it for this ”review,” I found I had much the same reaction.

The first chapter does an average job of introducing some of the broader themes of Gothic horror, but ultimately it feels like a section penned by someone who hasn’t really delved too far into scholarship on the Gothic or beyond the surface of Gothic literature in general. For example, this introductory chapter claims that Gothic horror relies on subtler terror in place of gore and shock, which is obviously not true when you encounter the Gothic’s many
ghoulish descriptions of corpses or the tortures perpetrated by the Inquisition. This may be an area in which I’m a bit snobbish, but I have a hard time taking the (woefully tiny) suggested reading list seriously when it recommends H. P. Lovecraft and not Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, or Matt‚hew Lewis–three of the most important authors in the Gothic mode. Also, this marks the first in a long succession of times where Edgar Allan Poe’s name is spelled wrong in a Ravenloft product. Overall, the sense I get from this chapter is that Ravenloft is more informed by Universal film adaptations of the Gothic than the literary source material. Nothing against the Universal films, of course, but they aren’t quite the same thing as the Gothic horror we’re promised.

The next chapter introduces some of the setting ideas that define Ravenloft as a unique world: each domain is formed around a ”Dark Lord” who is imprisoned in the very land they control, strange mists serve as explainable entry and exit points both into the setting and throughout the setting, and the land itself is prone to re-arrangement during times of ”conjunction.” Taken together, these elements cast Ravenloft in the unfortunate position of being
a place merely for ”weekend in hell” style adventures; that is, it doesn’t seem to be a setting in which native characters explore or protect the lands of their birth–instead, it’s a place that draws in characters from other, more robust, settings so that they might have a brief sojourn in a Gothic setting.

Chapter III initiates another aspect of the setting I could never really get onboard with: the nature of evil in Ravenloft changes how certain special abilities function in the setting. Paladins, for example, find most of their abilities altered (some might say ”nerfed”), while animal companions aren’t wholly to be trusted here. We might as well include the content of Chapter IX in this critique as well; that section of the book details the many ways that spells function differently in Ravenloft. While that adds a good deal of flavor, it’s also a tremendous pain in play because you need to look up what the spell does normally, then look it up again in the Ravenloft book to see if and how it is modified.

The next few chapters introduce further mechanical ideas that give the setting it’s own feel, but some work bett‚er than others. The idea of Fear and Horror checks is interesting, but it also relegates real fear to a dice roll–something I’ve sometimes found to be counterproductive in play. The next section gives more variation in strength, powers, and weakness to vampire and werecreature foes, which is a welcome addition. Curses are also given a fuller treatment, but their implementation still feels a bit sketchy and unsure. The Vistani, Ravenloft’s gypsies, are introduced, as is some general advice on how fortune telling might work in game terms.

Finally, on page 60 we start getting descriptions of the domains of the setting itself. Unfortunately, they’re uninspiring and vague–there’s very li‚ttle here in the descriptions of the various nations that screams SET AN ADVENTURE HERE RIGHT NOW! Further products in the Ravenloft all but admit that the conception of the setting as presented here is half-baked; later iterations of the setting would relegate some of the core lands to far-off islands (Bluetspur, G’henna, Markovia, the Nightmare Lands) while others were simply erased from existence for the crime of being terminally boring (Arak, Arkandale, Dorvinia, Gundarak).

The section about the various islands of Ravenloft suffers from the same problems. Many would be retconned out (Farelle, Sanguinia, Staunton Bluffs). Worse yet, taken with the previous chapter it’s clear that not much thought was put into crafting Ravenloft as a living, breathing, interconnected setting. Everything seems fundamentally cut-off from everything else; vital elements such as trade routes, alliances and enemies, and larger-scale political
intrigues are all missing here. Unfortunately, that’s a huge missed opportunity to make the setting feel like a place where the Gothic’s grander struggles could actually take place.

Basic things that tell us about a setting, such as religion, are entirely absent from the descriptions here. The next two sections perhaps explain why the lands of Ravenloft were left undeveloped, or at least where that effort was channeled instead. The following chapters detail the major NPCs in the setting, as well as illustrating their family trees. And therein lies the problem: Ravenloft was conceived as a setting made interesting by its NPCs instead of being created as an interesting place on its own merits. This problem really comes to the fore when you realize that the elaborate backstories given to each of the Dark Lords are unlikely to ever come to light during play. Giving the setting its own unique atmosphere through its various lands would have worked far bett‚er because the nature of adventuring in a setting means encountering what makes it stand out; loading the creativity into NPCs that the characters may not ever encounter simply leaves that vital detail sequestered in the GM’s hands.

The final sections–a chapter on how to do horror adventure and a sma‚ttering of new monsters–are decent. The advice is solid, and the monsters are on theme. However, they just aren’t enough to make up for how bland the setting feels in comparison to the White Wolf-esque effort that has gone into the setting’s villains.

It’s worth noting that the art throughout the book is done by Stephen Fabian and is, of course, uniformly excellent. Seriously, I’d buy it for the art alone.

Also included in the box are setting maps (nice, but oddly concerned with elevation over landscape), and a number of cardboard sheets that give isometric views of a location (forge‚ttable) or family portraits of major NPCs (which repeat information already given in the main book). The worst is the card that tells you which monsters are ”Ravenloft-approved” for the setting; I’ve said it before but if you can’t figure out how to make any given D&D monster Gothic and scary, you need to learn more words, son.

All in all, I still find Realm of Terror to be a frustrating and inspiring product. Taken as is, it really isn’t much of a setting–it just comes off feeling a bit flavorless in comparison to the vibrant source material, and looks like a rough draft of something that could have been spectacular if given more work. But oddly that’s what is inspiring about it. There are hints here of interesting things to be done with the setting, but they’re left as loose ends...loose ends that any DM could weave into something less mediocre than the raw material he’s bought. With a litt‚le vision, Ravenloft
could be revised and re-imagined into something that transcends the mundane, by-the-numbers presentation here. This version of Ravenloft is a setting ripe for you to put your own personal stamp on it because it's practically required.

The Other Boleyn Witch

A pseudo-historical campaign sketch: What some peasants whisper about Anne and Mary Boleyn is true–they have bewitched King Henry!

The Boleyn family has always been an ambitious one, but their dreams of prestige, power, and wealth saw only minor fulfillment; that is, until Thomas Boleyn made a pact with the Devil and initiated his children into the occult mysteries of black magic. Through their father’s machinations, Anne and Mary Boleyn have used their place at court to work foul spells of att‚raction on Henry VIII. Their brother George, with whom the sisters engage in an unholy and incestuous tryst, also pours poison in the King’s ear.
If their plan comes to fruition, the King will divorce his lawful wife Catherine and break with the one true Christian church. If one, or both, sister becomes pregnant with a male child what monster will be heir to the English throne?

The player characters could be agents of the Queen enjoined to thwart the Satanic maneuvering of the Boleyn sisters–or perhaps they are Catholic partisans who will not see their country excommunicated from the Catholic faith. They might even be assassins sent from the Pope to stamp out this foul heresy in England’s court.

Inspired by: The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, old Solomon Kane comics.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Gothic Backdrops of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!

One of my great, unexamined influences: those painted backdrops from Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!

More here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Friends or Foes

Friends? Foes? All to be determined.

Emaline Stark, a cavalier employed by the noble House of Cruzot. She is rumored to know exotic sword techniques that she learned somewhere in the mysterious East. She often chooses to fight with a wooden sword against foes she considers unworthy of her ancestral blade. (She considers most foes to be utterly unworthy.) 

Black Mullen, an assassin for hire. Few pistol-duelists have as many notches upon his belt as he does. In fact, he makes a habit of sending so many souls to an early grave that he keeps a florist that specializes in bereavement arrangements on retainer.

Gildebrande, a bawd and procurer. It is believed that he is involved with a ring of slavers who capture young men and women to sell abroad in foreign lands. He is often incarcerated, but never held for long.

Hollis Mulvaney, a former student of Creedhall University. She crafts her own alchemical poisons of terrifying purpose. (Hence the long leather gloves.) She has never interred a foe alive, but she would dearly like to.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Born in a Megadungeon: Thrushcross Heights

You and your brothers and sisters were born within the massive mansion named Thrushcross Heights, but none of you were ever allowed beyond the confines of the nursery. The servants who brought you food and tended to your education said little about the house--save that it is a sprawling edifice, labyrinthine in scope, architecturally irrational, and unthinkably dangerous.

The door leading out of the nursery is always locked. You've tried. All attempts to run past the servants as they enter have proved fruitless. The servants are kindly, but fast as panthers.

You can see windswept moors drearily stretching into the distance from the windows of your room, but escape into that waiting, wider world was impossible; the window proved unbreakable no matter which toys you and your kin threw against its ancient panes.

You thought you and your brothers and sisters might grow old and die knowing only this one room in the house, until she came on your sixteenth birthdays. She says her name is Kantabelle Sharpe. She is dressed in a grown that seems sewn from the remnants of widow's weeds. She carries a thick iron ring of keys. She is wry, and her smile terrifies you.

But Miss Sharpe says she is here to liberate you and your siblings. She has dismissed the servants and cast wide the door. She says that the house is yours to explore, and that you should gather up whatever implements you can from your childhood amusements to protect yourself because the house is not safe. 

She smiles and says that your parents wish to see you, should you be able to find them within the untried halls and rooms that await.

All you need to do is step outside the door and rush to find your fate within Thrushcross Heights.

* * *

If I was going to run a "megadungeon," the above would be the set-up.

Inspired by: Crimson Peak, Wuthering Heights, Gormenghast, American Horror Story: Hotel, House of Leaves

I'd probably run this with 5e D&D. The only caveat would be that "backgrounds" don't really make sense; I'd just let the players pick two skills and two tools to be proficient with.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Psycho-sexual Ravenloft: Tapestry of Dark Souls II

Some people hate being wrong. Some people will never admit to being wrong. I'm not one of them; I love being wrong. Each time you're wrong you get a chance to broaden your perspective, to learn something new.

And man, was I wrong about what the tapestry represents in Elaine Bergstrom's novel!

I had previously analyzed it as a kind of emancipatory khora, something akin to the titular yellow wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story. turns out that the tapestry is just another awful male figure. In fact, it's pretty much just a scheming rapist: "I knew the woman would conceive; knew it from the moment I touched her trembling body. Ah, delicious! After so many hungry years of half-life in this prison, her fear bubbled through me, fresh and sweet as new wine. How I used her, feasting on her innocence" (88).

As if to underline how awful the power of patriarchy is, we immediately get a flashback to Gundarak, where the taxation of female children leads to a culture of infanticide: "Torvil, her husband, wasn't willing to pay it or support the girls, who would undoubtedly be taken from him later. So Dirca had done what so many women in the land had done. With her own hands, she carried each babe to the hills and left her to die. Afterward, she sat in her plain, stone cottage and listened to the distant howling of wolves, thankful her daughters had been born in winter, when the cold alone would kill them" (100). This description essentially doubles-down on depicting a distorted and monstrous masculine authority. Not only does Dirca's husband refuse to offer security to his female children, part of his reasoning for withholding that support is that the daughters will just eventually be taken away by other, more powerful, men anyway.

Interestingly, grotesque masculine authority is shown to be the cause of its own undoing. When Dirca goes to a gypsy woman for a potion to make herself barren, she instead walks away with a poison with which to kill her husband. It's his insistence on upholding the misogynistic order the creates the opportunity of his own demise. 

But now that Leith is out of the way, the novel has turned to her son, Jonathan, as its protagonist and/or antihero. However, even with this new focus, Maeve is still in the picture, and is as polymorphously perverse as ever: "As she walked barefooted through the crowd, everyone, women as well as men, paused to look at her" (166-165). Male gaze, female all likes to glide over Maeve. And speaking of Maeve's perversity, not only has she had the mother, but she now sets her sights on the son as well: "'You are welcome to come and see me any time you wish,' she whispered and kissed him. He tried to pull away, but her grip was too strong and the emotions she touched in him were as potent as his rage had been" (170). The use of the word "emotions" here seems like a euphemism. Maeve also isn't afraid to let Jon know that she keeps a number of side-pieces on tap. Even though she has just invited him to "visit" at any time, she arranges matters so that he see one of her other lovers making the walk of shame: 

As Jon lay belly down in the brush near the river, wondering if he dared accept the woman's invitation, the cottage door opened and one of the village elders came out. Maeve followed, her bright orange gown glowing in the morning sun. Her parting kiss was as deep as the one she had given Jon last night, though her eyes were open and she stared over the elder's shoulder at the place where Jon was hidden. A small, private smile danced lightly on her lips as the man said good-bye. After her visitor left, Maeve went inside, leaving the door open behind her. (175)

But if Jon experiences a weird psycho-sexual confusion of eros and thanatos, he's not alone in the village. In fact, in a Wicker Man-like move it turns out that the community engages in ritual sacrifice as a fertility rite. A goblin captured during the harvest is burned alive while the village elder chants "To the spirit of the land, we give this sacrifice. May its pain and its blood make the earth fertile, make the spring seed sprout, make the waters flow" (168). All we need added is a bit of Britt Eckland. Jon, for his part as a spectator, seems turned on by this bloody spectacle: "Jon returned his gaze to the goblin. Some dark pleasure was churning in him as well, the savagery of the sacrifice arousing a hunger he could scarcely understand" (169).

This is the man that the beautiful, innocent Sondra marries. I'm sure that will work out just fine, right?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tyler Durden is Nyarlathotep

A while back I read Brian Lumley’s The Burrower Beneath. It’s interesting that he adopts the elementalism that August Derleth welded to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and Outer Gods; he also adopts the Elder Gods as benevolent, though distant, entities. It seems that Lumley’s Titus Crow stories aren’t held in particularly high regard by Lovecraft fans, perhaps because he takes the aforementioned liberties. He also favors action-capable protagonists over fainting antiquarians. That said, I think there are a ton of ideas worth stealing in that book.

One thing that stuck out to me was that Azathoth has been re-cast as the literal Big Bang. Azathoth is the primal movement of creation and destruction–this event is from which all chaos proceeds, the cosmic explosion of being and the inevitable contraction into the void. (This is mentioned in passing as a possible "truth" of Azathoth in the Trail of Cthulhu RPG.) There are some peculiar implications here: the foremost in my mind is that this posits Azathoth as the original creator, which makes sense if Lovecraft was inspired here by Dunsany’s Mana-Yood-Sushai in Gods of Pegana as Robert Price has suggested.

Similarly, Nyarlathotep is conjectured not to be an actual entity per se, but rather a manifestation of a collective power among the Great Old Ones. If Nyarlathotep is taken as the "messenger of the gods," this makes him literally a manifest, changeable expression rather than a being with its own agenda. Trail of Cthulhu offers this as a possibility as well: "'Nyarlathotep’ is not a being, a separate Messenger of the Gods, but a technique, specifically telepathy, used by the Great old ones. The 'thousand forms' of nyarlathotep are merely the natural result of telepathic impressions on thousands or millions of brains, human and inhuman." What, then, of Nyarlathotep’s mocking attitude toward the Great Old Ones? Might we read this as an inseparable self-loathing issuing forth from the very beings that call Nyarlathotep into being as a vehicle of communication? Does Nyarlathotep then function as the Tyler Durden to the Great Old Ones’ unnamed (and perhaps unnameable) cosmic narration?

(The first rule of Fhtagn Club is...)

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered why the moon has been linked to things like lycanthropy and general lunacy–it’s because there are Great Old Ones imprisoned within it who are broadcasting sanity-sha‚ttering messages to mankind here on earth. That’s prett‚y much all the excuse you need to play a game of Space Age Cthulhu on the Moon! adventures.

Speaking of 50s-era shenanigans, it is worth noting that the foul mythos entities are often referred at as CCD (Cthulhu Cycle Deities) throughout the novel. What a wonderfully terse designation! It makes me think of two other heavy acronyms in use in the period: the USA and the USSR, the two poles of the Cold War. Which, in turn, makes me think of the ba‚ttle against Cthulhu and his ilk as a sort of cosmic Cold War. Think of it this way: the Elder Gods clearly could wipe out the Great Old Ones, but they prefer to follow a policy of containment; they merely imprison the CCD in the earth, in the ocean, in the moon, etc. through the use of the Elder Sign. Humanity is the rogue agent capable of assassinating the main players without "official cosmic sanction." Oddly, this makes the Wilmarth Foundation (a well-connected and massive founded scientific/military operation of scholars and occultists!) the "good guy" version of the rise of independent military contractors.

("Blackwater" covering R’lyeh, indeed.)

Lumley also fits the Abrahamic god into this cosmos. Holy water, for example, holds power against the children of Shudde-M’ell, and thus the objects of Christian faith must be similarly as empowered as things such as the Elder Sign. Is Christ hanging out with Bast and Nodens in the Dreamlands? The medieval poem "Dream of the Rood" now takes on new aspects; were the world’s current faiths communicated through dreams in much the same way as Cthulhu makes contact with his dread cultists?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Horror Movie Double Features

Elsewhere I've posted a series of double feature suggestions should you be in the market for some horror movies this October. I've collected them here if you're in need of recommendations.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Made in America Monsters

The US is a weird place. A weird place that has a lot of weird folklore, urban legends, and cryptids running about. 

It's also a weird place that has fifty states, which means you can easily make a random encounter table with one monster from each state pretty easily:

d100 Monster
1-2 Monster Pig (Alabama)
3-4 Kushtaka (Alaska)
5-6 The Mogollon Monster (Arizona)
7-8 The Fouke Monster (Arkansas)
9-10 Big Foot (California)
11-12 Slide-Rock Bolter (Colorado)
13-14 Melon Heads (Connecticut)
15-16 Primehook Swamp Creature (Delaware)
17-18 Skunk Ape (Florida)
19-20 Altamaha-ha (Georgia)
21-22 Menehune (Hawaii)
23-24 The Bear Lake Monster (Idaho)
25-26 Tuttle Bottoms Monster (Illinois)
27-28 Green Clawed Beast (Indiana)
29-30 Monster Turtle of Big Blue (Iowa)
31-32 Beaman (Kansas)
33-34 Hopkinsville Goblins (Kentucky)
35-36 Rougarou (Louisiana)
37-38 Maine Mystery Beast (Maine)
39-40 Goatman (Maryland)
41-42 Dover Demon (Massachusetts)
43-44 Michigan Dogman (Michigan)
45-46 Wendigo (Minnesota)
47-48 Pascagoula Aliens (Mississippi)
49-50 Momo (Missouri)
51-52 Flathead Lake Monster (Montana)
53-54 Alkali Lake Monster (Nebraska)
55-56 Tahoe Tessie (Nevada)
57-58 Grays (New Hampshire)
59-60 Jersey Devil (New Jersey)
61-62 Spring-Heeled Jack (New Mexico)
63-64 Montauk Monster (New York)
65-66 North Carolina Sewer Monster (North Carolina)
67-68 Thunderbird (North Dakota)
69-70 Loveland Frog (Ohio)
71-72 Oklahoma Octopus (Oklahoma)
73-74 Colossal Claude (Oregon)
75-76 Green Man (Pennsylvania)
77-78 Mercy Brown (Rhode Island)
79-80 Lizard Man of Scrape Ore Swamp (South Carolina)
81-82 Taku-He (South Dakota)
83-84 Bell Witch (Tennessee)
85-86 Black-Eyed Children (Texas)
87-88 Skinwalker (Utah)
89-90 Champ (Vermont)
91-92 Bunny Man (Virginia)
93-94 Batsquatch (Washington)
95-96 Mothman (West Virginia)
97-98 Beast of Bray Road (Wisconsin)
99-100 San Pedro Mountains Mummy (Wyoming) 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Deep Carbon Observatory

I don't really want to knock Deep Carbon Observatory, but since this was the review several people asked me to the interest of reviewing things honestly: I just don't like this one.

You might like it; a lot of people seem to. I'm not into Deep Carbon Observatory for two reasons, mostly:

The first reason is that Deep Carbon Observatory is definitely what I term a miserycrawl. A dam has broken, leaving the world in the wake of a cataclysm, but there's treasure to be found if you venture into the depths of a murderhole. The people and creatures you meet on the way are invariably dying, starving, drowning, or being devoured. Alternately, or additionally, they are hostile, uncaring, duplicitous, or at best ungrateful for any help you give them. 

This is where the devotion to a bleak mood in the adventure diverges from what the people I play games with enjoy over the long haul; in my experience, a scenario that relies on misery loses its punch pretty quickly once the players figure out that most everything they encounter is going to be crapsack-flavored. If it's orphans and cannibals all the way down, there's really no reason for them to care and every reason just to disengage from the game itself.

Other people can't get enough of this stuff, and that's fine, but it's not for me. I like dark elements to be prominent in campaign settings and adventures, but I prefer things to be a bit more subtle, played for fun, or at least tempered by other thematics.

I was discussing Deep Carbon Observatory with a friend who characterized its encounters as "vignettes," which stuck me as apt and makes me wonder if the adventure is intended more to be read than played; not much thought seems to have been put into how Deep Carbon Observatory will be used at the table. This lack of usability is the second reason I can't really recommend this book. The keyed descriptions aren't as terse or helpful as they could be, there is no overview for the adventure so the DM will likely need to take notes to prep it, the writing is a bit self-indulgent in places, the mechanical widgets are sometimes fiddly-yet-vague in that particularly "auteur OSR" way, and the maps look like this:

The art looks like this sometimes:
But mostly it looks like this:

There is a random table that tells you to roll a d10. It has 12 entries, and the relatively short table hasn't been fitted to a single page:

Here's a room description I plucked out at random to illustrate what I'm talking about: 

1. A knife room! Literally edgy! And it is designed so that some jerks can watch people suffer and die! 2. The room description isn't really helpful for conveying this information to the players. (How are they supposed to glean that it was a "cheap method of execution," or that it was meant to be a Chuck E. Cheese of murder-amusement?) 3. That stray apostrophe makes me sad.

Sometimes my two reasons for not feeling the Deep Carbon Observatory experience combine:

I can understand, and even empathize with, a certain single-mindedness when it comes to evoking a bleak mood or creating an atmosphere of dread, but reading Deep Carbon Observatory gave me the same feeling I get from a lot of the black metal theory stuff like Hideous Gnosis: clarity, purpose, and general usability shouldn't be sacrificed to ~poetics of ultima grimdark~I can appreciate the effort that goes into making a thing, but ultimately this wasn't to my taste and isn't something I'd run.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

An Interview with Sean Bircher

Regency vampires, steampunk in Asia, duet rpgs...let's ask Sean Bircher about it. Also check out his blog, Wine & Savages.

Q: I know you mostly as a Savage Worlds guy. What is it about that system that keeps you coming back for more?

Savage Worlds gives me everything I need to run games the way I like to run them -- which is with a minimum of preparation.

We all know the most interesting opponents are NPCs, not monsters. Dragons are cool, but they're not nearly as challenging as an evil wizard or corrupt nobleman. I've played a lot of D&D 5e recently. I love that system, but even with the new official rules saying NPCs can be designed as monsters instead of obeying character class rules, it still takes too much work to build an NPC from scratch (especially if you're worrying about Challenge Rating).

Savage Worlds was designed for experienced gamers with limited amounts of time, so it throws some conventional game design concepts out the window. NPCs in Savage Worlds are deliberately not built using the same character construction and advancement rules used for player characters. The limited granularity of the d4 to d12 range in attributes and skills and the relatively compact list of Edges and Powers (equivalent to D&D's feats and spells) means that I can improvise an NPC's stats in moments. And it doesn't even break the system because Savage Worlds is so fast and loose to begin with.

It took me half an hour to build an oathbreaker paladin for my wife's fey knight to fight in 5e. I could have improvised him on the spot in Savage Worlds.

Q: Speaking of Savage Worlds: out of all the rpgs I'm interested in, Savage Worlds has, by far, the nicest online community I've encountered. That said, the most fractious I've seen that community get has been over the recent changes to how the Shaken condition works. I'm curious, which do you prefer: the new or older way of handling Shaken characters? Why?

Funny enough, all that time playing D&D 5e means I haven't really seen the new Shaken rules in action. It seems like such a minor change -- a Shaken character can now shake off the Shaken condition and still act on its turn if it scores a single success on a Spirit roll instead of having to get a success and raise -- but it's a huge change to a system with so little granularity.

The change certainly makes fighting vampires harder. An attack that isn't one of their weaknesses (like holy water or a stake in the heart) can only Shake a vampire. Under the old rules, a group of vampire hunters could hope to keep an undead opponent from attacking back by hammering it with melee attacks until somebody got in a decapitating blow or stab to the heart; chances were good that the vampire would succeed on its Spirit roll but not so good that it would get a raise. The new rules give the vampire a much, much better chance of fighting back every round.

Which I guess means I like the new rules better. 

Q: There are quite a few rpg adventures or settings that are riffs on either the Early Modern or Victorian periods, but on your blog you've posted some very compelling gaming ideas centered on the Regency period. What is it about that era that interests you, what do you see as gameable about it, and why is there so little of it in gaming right now?

The Regency is such an odd time period. It's so easy to think of it as mannered and staid if all you know is Pride and Prejudice, but it was a time of social upheaval and rapid modernization. Jane Austen's career is itself a manifestation of that upheaval; it was suddenly possible for a novelist to make a career out of writing about the middle class and middle class values instead of the nobility. Throw in the wild behavior of the Romantic poets, working class protests like the Luddites, and Napoleon freakin' Bonaparte and you've got as fascinating an era as mankind has ever experienced. Heck, it's when Frankenstein was written!

The most gameable element -- if you're going to ignore the Napoleonic Wars -- is probably the tension between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The latter half of the 18th century was all about how science and rationality would pave the way to a better future, and instead Britain lost the American colonies and the French aristocracy lost their heads. Society as a whole was freaked out and then the king went mad and the worst monarch ever took over. In response, a bunch of young punks dropped out of society and started doing drugs and having sex and that freaked people out even more. The tragedy and weirdness -- the madness -- that surrounded the Romantics is a through line to a great horror setting.

Or you could go the opposite route and just play Regency romance games with your significant other.

It's probably those Regency romances (which I personally enjoy very much) that turn off most gamers. They misread Jane Austen -- seeing only fancy costumes and repressed feelings -- and don't appreciate the social and economic turmoil that underlies her heroines' lives. They don't dig deeper and read about the Prince Regent's decadence; they don't associate the Vila Diodati with the same time period as Sense and Sensibility.

Fantasy and horror fiction about the Regency has been on the rise. There's satirical works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and lighthearted fare like Teresa Medeiros' The Vampire Who Loved Me, but there's also deeper, darker books like David Liss' The Twelfth Enchantment and (of course) Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Mary Robinette Kowal has her alternate history Glamourist Histories series and Galen Beckett has his fantasy world Mrs. Quent series. There's a lot to draw on if you know where to look. With Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on the BBC and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies finally coming to theaters, I think we can expect we'll see more Regency-inspired gaming in the next two years. 

Q: Speaking of eras that don't get enough love, I'm really looking forward to seeing more The King is Dead stuff from you. Can you give us a brief sales pitch on what that is all about? What are the key elements I should tell my players about to get them to demand that I run it for them?

The King is Dead is about revolution in a Gothic 18th century that never was. A literally bloodsucking oligarchy rules Malleus -- an island nation on the verge of astonishing advances in science and learning -- and humankind is finally rising up to overthrow its oppressors. Throw Black Sails, Outlander, and Turn into a blender with Brotherhood of the Wolf and Hammer's Karnstein Trilogy and you've got The King is Dead.

Characters in The King is Dead are the desperate and disenfranchised, uniting together to take down foes more powerful than any of them alone. Everyone plays a member of one of several secret societies sworn to destroy the vampires. Some societies are parallels to real-life societies like the Bavarian Illuminati and the Scottish Jacobites, while others are crazy concepts like the Captain Kronos-like vampire hunters of the Bloodstained Blade or the Wold Newton-inspired mutants of the Starlight Children. These societies offer material benefits in the guerrilla campaign to destroy the aristocracy like lending characters money, collaborating on scientific research, and even fielding armies. As your character advances, you also get to increase the power and influence of your secret society -- which in turns helps shape the future of Malleus

The opposition is horrifying. The vampires and their allies run the gamut from Renfield-like sycophants to daywalking Dhampirs to Nosferatu-like horrid corpses. The most powerful are protean monsters inspired by the hyperviolence of Kohta Hirano's Hellsing. Werewolves and liches lurk in the wilderness, uneasy allies or enemies to the heroes. The grim, sublime landscape of Malleus itself seems to battle you. There's even a mechanic for Dark Secrets that can turn allies into enemies with the draw of a card.

The King is Dead is distilled Gothic madness: decadence, secrets, revolt against society, and vampires.

Q: You do quite a bit of “duet gaming” with your wife, Robin. Can you explain what that is, as well as any considerations that go into prepping that kind of game as opposed to the more traditional “gaming group” style of play?

Duet gaming is one player and one GM. “Duet gaming” is a term I picked up from RPGnet’s Duets column (which I’ve never finished reading). Functionally, it means the same as what some people call “single-player games” or “solo play,” but implicitly “duet gaming” suggests a closer relationship – either personally or collaboratively – between the player and GM. This might take the form of switching player/GM roles, collaborative worldbuilding, or just asking the player what she’d like to have happen next in the campaign.

With Robin and me, I quite simply do not prep. I tried that during our first few years and it never worked. I’d plot out sweeping, epic story arcs and grand romances, but all of that planning killed the momentum. It just felt forced and dry; because we knew what was supposed to happen, it made getting there dull. Improvisation keeps me guessing just as much as she does; it keeps the passion alive.

For example, I decided that unusually foolhardy orc raiding parties were attacking the elves of the Moonwood. I had no idea why they were doing that, but as Robin’s character talked things through with some NPCs, three options became apparent: it was just a coincidence, the orcs were testing the elves’ defenses for King Obould of Dark Arrow Keep, or the orcs were testing the elves’ defenses in defiance of King Obould. When Robin’s fey knight paladin arrived King Obould’s court as an ambassador to the orc-king, it quickly became apparent to me from playing Obould that these orcs were not his. Since a coincidence would be boring, this means some new foe is challenging both the elves and the orcs. I’m pretty sure this challenger is going to be a hobgoblin war leader, but he might turn out to be working for a mind flayer by the time we get to him.

Also, it turned out Obould had a sternly handsome, Worf-like son. Who knew?

This approach would not necessarily be needed for people who do not see each other every night, who don’t spend an average of two hours a night, four days of the week playing elfgames. One of the joys I feel when I run multi-player games is surprise at the unpredictable choices gaming groups bring to the table. You never know who is going to make the next horrible decision or awesome joke when you’ve got a table of four or five people together, but it’s easy to fall into a rut if it’s just the two of you. Literally not knowing what’s happening next keeps things lively for us.

Overall, the need to improvise makes Savage Worlds a great system for duets because – as I mentioned – I can make a new NPC in moments. We’ve actually been playing D&D 5e together for the last few months, though; it’s been a bit of a challenge because NPCs are harder to build, but the variety of antagonists available in the Monster Manual makes up for some of that. Plus, I just really want to have a campaign last until 20th level for once.

Q: You're also involved in the Steamscapes project as a writer on Steamscapes Asia. What are your top five steampunk influences, as well as the non-steampunk influences that inspired your work on Steamscapes Asia?

Eric Simon hired me much, much more for my familiarity with Japan than for my steampunk bona fides, but I think I can scrabble together at least five steampunk influences.

1) The top influence was certainly the original Steamscapes: North America, which fired my imagination by presenting an entire steampunk world built up from actual history – and engaging with that history, instead of just using it as a backdrop for the usual Victorian scientific romances.

2) My personal favorite steampunk work is the anime/video game franchise Sakura Taisen (AKA Sakura Wars), the story of an all-girl musical revue that also fights demons by piloting clunky-cute steam-powered mecha. I actually had to deliberately ignore Sakura Taisen as much as possible while writing my section of Steamscapes because Eric (who is also a Sakura Taisen fan) didn’t want mecha.

3) After that comes the first two The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. I gave up on Alan Moore during the “Century” arc, but the first two mini-series were awesome.

4) Jess Nevins’ Fantastic Victoriana, the ultimate guide to all the stuff everybody steals.

5) Screw it. I’m going to count George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers. No, they’re not actually steampunk. Yes, they’re about a real bastard of a protagonist. Yes, Fraser himself became a bigger and bigger bastard as he aged. None of that changes the fact that The Flashman Papers taught me more about the Victorian globe than anything else I’ve ever read.

As for my non-steampunk influences, those are much easier to elucidate. I’m so lucky that I was hired to write about Japan because I was able to read a lot of manga and watch a lot of anime as legitimate research for the project. I read a lot of actual history books, but nothing can give you a better idea of what people feel about their own history than devouring their pop culture. There were a lot of series that I either didn’t finish (like Intrigue in the Bakumatsu) or maybe a single episode contributed an idea (such as Lupin III), but the following are the ones that contributed most to themes and tone.

1) Rurouni Kenshin was my biggest influence. Steamscapes might eschew wuxia-like magical martial arts, but the fact that Rurouni Kenshin is set only a few years later than Steamscapes’ timeline and that it’s chockablock full of references to genuine historical figures made it an invaluable window into how the Japanese perceive the Meiji Restoration. There are weird bits of history -- like the attempted purge of Buddhism by the Meiji government – that I wouldn’t know about if it wasn’t for Rurouni Kenshin.

2) Oh! Edo Rocket might actually count as steampunk, since it’s about a bunch of late Tokugawa peasants who build a fireworks-powered rocket to the moon, but it’s probably too ludicrously anachronistic. It’s another case of using pop culture to inform my research; Oh! Edo Rocket taught me about the malaise the common people felt in the final years of the shogunate.

3) Yojimbo. It’s easy to forget that this film takes place in the late Tokugawa period – if you don’t remember that one of the villains is carrying a revolver. One of my contributions to the geography of Steamscapes: Asia is the Republic of Ezo, an independent Hokkaido that I like to think of as “Kurosawa Land.”

4) Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex might seem completely off-topic, but Steamscapes concerns itself with more typically cyberpunk fare like transhumanism. Puls, when I needed to prove that the Japanese would indeed build robot geisha, I got to just point to the first episode of GiTS: SAC.
5) The biggest contribution that wasn’t manga or anime was the pop group Wagakki Band. They combine rock bass, guitar, and drums with traditional kodo drums, koto, shakuhachi, shamisen, and vocals into a beautifully unique sound. They’re probably my favorite active musical act today, and the video for “Senbonzakura” perfectly captures my vision of the Steamscapes aesthetic.

Q: What's next for Sean Bircher?

Four-in-Hand Games is publishing The King is Dead as a full Savage Worlds setting book next summer, so that means I have to write it. Thankfully, a good third of the book is written already.

I expect there will be a Kickstarter, but we’re going to keep the goals really humble. I hope to be able to do the art using original photography and stock photos – the concept is to make the book look like a licensed game for movie or TV series that doesn’t exist – but I’ll need some cash to pay illustrators if that approach fails.

I plan to organize some playtests in person and online. I’ll definitely be taking The King is Dead to all the local gaming conventions – and that means PAX South and Chupacabracon, so hopefully we’ll get some decent exposure.

I have some upcoming articles for Savage Insider (including a gazetteer for Steamscapes: Asia’s version of the Yoshiwara), but after that I’ll be cutting back on external commitments to concentrate on The King is Dead and the blog. (Unless EN5ider commissions my absurd “Manos:” The Hands of Fate-as-a-D&D-module idea for their Halloween issue.)

Down the line, I’d like to experiment with the AGE System. I talked to Chris Pramas at Gen Con and he said they plan to have a license modeled on the one for Savage Worlds, so it might prove a fun system for future projects (or a conversion of The King is Dead). I have an idea for a playful, sexy swashbuckling setting called Altellus and I’m not sure what system would be best for it. It’s a spiritual successor to the classic Lace & Steel RPG, mixing Greco-Roman half-humans with a vaguely 16th century aesthetic. I expect it might push the boundaries of Savage Worlds’ self-imposed PG-13 content restrictions, and I’m hoping the AGE System (or even D&D 5e!) might be a bit more open to a little cheesecake and beefcake.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

My Dream Date with a Villain 2

Is now available!

A second round of incredible artists and authors have opened their hearts to terrible scoundrels in My Dream Date with a Villain Vol. 2. By turns humorous, sexy, and touching, the stories in these pages dare to explore the romantic side of some of the worst villains from comics, movies, literature, and even the music industry.

Black and white interior
Color cover
5.5" x 8.5" gloss paper
44 pages of content
And if you haven't yet added them to your collection, also check out:

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Man with the Wizard Van: An Interview with Wayne Snyder

My theory is that we just don't pay attention to the regular gamer and what he or she has to say about their hobby. I don't remember when or where I first started chatting with Wayne Snyder, but man, this is a guy that just seems to be in it for the fun. He's got it right.

Q: I feel bad for the rest of the gaming world because I own the best piece of art to come out of the DIY gaming scene: the picture you drew for the cover of Devilmount. Can you give us a bit of your background in art? How did you get started and what inspires your work?

I grew up drawing all the time. There was a lot of down time as a kid. Time spent waiting around while my mother took care of something or other. I remember drawing chainsaw armed robots on the back of the church program during Sunday services, using the back of a hymnal as a drawing board. I found my way to D&D the summer I turned 9 and it has been on my mind ever since. Fantasy art has filled my life. As a lad I learned a lot from Wormy comics in the back of Dragon mags. I spent long hours just staring at the illustrations in my game books. There is no separation for me between game and art. If a game doesn’t have engaging art, I won’t play it no matter how great the system is. Back in the 80s you didn’t have 40 reviews of a game available even before it came out. You walked into Walden Books once a month to see what was up and if a new book was on the shelf you took it down and flipped through it. You didn’t really have time to read and understand the core rules. I just looked at the pictures and made my decision based almost solely on the art, same with comics. Early on the 80s TSR art department became my pantheon of saints. I wanted to be Larry Elmore. Later it was Savage Sword of Conan comics and the European artists in Heavy Metal mixed with the grim dark of newly discovered Rogue Trader and Warhammer Fantasy. I took all the art classes available in high school and even took some of them twice and then trucked off to art school after that. But I had no idea what I was doing. I went to a really theory heavy fine arts program and they didn’t have much to say about my bugbears and castles. I was really na├»ve. I didn’t know enough to transfer to a different school, I just buckled down and made a bunch of conceptual art and graduated in 4 years with a BFA and a professional grade drinking habit and trucked off to the south with no greater aspirations than to sit on a porch and drink all the PBR.  I didn’t make much art for a long time. It wasn’t until I found G+ in 2012 that I really started producing again. That cover for Devilmount is one of the first pieces I had made in a really long time. The G+ rpg community is so inspiring, it really moved me to get back on the horse and reclaim a lost skill I really enjoy employing. I still make it my business to know all about fantasy artists and their bodies of work. It’s a hobby unto itself. I usually know more about the person who painted an rpg book cover than I do about the game itself. 
Q: You're a fan of Dungeon Crawl Classics. What is it about that particular fantasy rpg that drew you in initially, and what about it keeps you interested in it?

When I first stepped on the G+ scene back in 2012 I didn’t know anything about DCC. I believe it was Edgar Johnson who first posted an invite to the Metal Gods game. His blurb was brilliant and totally heavy metal. It sounded like everything I ever wanted in a game. I realized I had to play in that game. I had never played online and I was a bit worried but that went out the window five minutes in. I played DCC online for six months before I got around to buying the rulebook. The game is intuitive to me after years and years of D&D. DCC has a lot of things going on, but they don’t require constant book reference ruining the immersion and slowing down the action. The most entertaining part of any RPG is the people you play with, the smart, funny, clever fuckers, who make it all go round. DCC gives you room to play. It offers a swift coherent frame work to keep things rolling along, but it is an open field of player driven fun times beyond that. Now it takes a certain clever brand of person to really get on with a system like this. DCC has removed the rewards of power gaming and math hammering, which I’ve seen bloat some other games down, and through that, has created a self-selecting community of true fun seekers. Folks who want to min-max or “win D&D” don’t seem to want to play this game. It isn’t balanced, in fact it’s often completely haywire and that’s why I love it.  This play style has aggregated a super creative community (see all the zines) and you’ll rarely meet a player who you wouldn’t love to have back to the table. The amount of awesome new friends I’ve made in the last three years because of DCC is incredible and something I never would have expected to occur in my adult life.

Q: You're part of the triumvirate behind the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad 'zine. What's the hardest part of publishing a gaming 'zine? What's the most rewarding part?

I think the hardest part is laying out each issue, making it fit together coherently, and the business end of it, the production of physical copies and shipping logistics and internet store fronts. But Adam Muszkiewicz is a hero and he does all that unpleasantness for us. So for me the biggest hurdle is everyday life. Just having enough gusto left to draw or even come up with good ideas after a full day of landscaping work is getting harder and harder as age catches up with me. The most rewarding thing is having people enjoy the fruits of our labors. The zine makes people happy, and that makes me happy.

Q: Speaking of metal, I always associate you with crushing riffs. What are the last three albums that blew your mind? How does metal intersect with your love of gaming?

Satan Worshipping Doom by Bongripper is still making ripples in my brain juice with its all instrumental brutal crushing doom. Acid Mothers Temple & The Cosmic Inferno - Anthem of the Space is a real experience. I recently got to see them live and couldn’t get the smile off my face for a week. Ancient Japanese space hippies know where it’s at. I don’t think they have ever played the same song twice and that is perfect. Estron by Slomatics is an album I just can’t get enough of. It is a concept album, really a single 40 minute song. It sounds like the things Lovecraft talks about when he uses the term cyclopean. It would make a good soundtrack to the Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath motion picture.

Metal intersects with every aspect of my life. Metal is a lifestyle for me. It inspires my art and my gaming. It keeps me on point while I’m fighting dirt for a living. Like most good sci-fi and fantasy novels, there is a lot of philosophical truths under all the genre trappings, the skulls, and chains, and fire. Metal is my anthem for whatever I’m about at the time.

Q: You recently posted about how old-school miniatures, especially John Blanche's stuff, continues to move you. What is it about that style that speaks to you, and what advice would you give someone interesting in getting into the minis hobby?

John Blanche may be the longest working art director on any single gaming IP. He has been crafting the dual worlds of the gothic retro-future Warhammer 40k and the sodden moss shrouded medieval heap that is Warhammer Fantasy almost as long as I’ve been alive. It is in his blood. It is made of his blood. He crafts miniatures the same way he crafts his artworks. He builds them from the ground up, creates a story, and defines a mood. He has always been a kit basher and DIY miniature modeler, taking parts from any number of model kits and piecing them together to form something completely new. His mini painting style is reflective of his 2D works. He splashes on paint and inks, working over the surfaces in layers of colors and textures, letting the materials do the work for him. It’s grimy and corroded, stained, patinaed and beautiful. I’ve fallen in love with his miniature creations and the works of an ever growing group of artists who see his work as inspiration for their own. They work in the medium of tiny plastic, metal, or resin figures, where each miniature is a work of art in its own right. It is a far stretch from batch painting 100 space ork boyz to get them on the table by next Saturday. It’s the art in it, making it personal, which keeps me coming back, same as the DIY table top game scene.

My advice, to someone just stepping into the miniatures hobby, is start slow. Check out some skirmish games. Buy two or three minis at a time and work on them until they are done. See how long it takes you to do the work before you buy 200 of them. Having boxes and boxes of unpainted miniatures you’ll probably never have time to assemble and paint can be kind of depressing and you can easily tie up a hefty amount of cash that way. But if you’re trying to play some sort of huge wargame with 100s of little dudes on the table, all I can say is good luck with that.

Q: If you could command the DIY gaming braintrust to create one product for your use, what would you demand? 

Wow… I have trouble keeping up with the flood of great stuff people are putting out already. Something I would find useful would be a book of dungeon puzzles of varying difficulties, like a ZORK reference book.

Q: What's next for Wayne Snyder?

I’m working on a third issue of Dark Ruins, a mini adventure zine I’ve been putting out. I’m signed up to write and illustrate five monsters for Mike Evans' Hubris kickstarter, coming soon. I’ve got Metal Gods #4 in the works and some other illustration work for some indie folks. I’m really looking forward to being able to climb into the wizard van I’ve been working on and set off on a strange and exciting odyssey across the USA, meeting up with awesome gaming folks, playing games, do some camping and really make the most of this crazy hobby we all love.